Saturday, October 2, 2010

Symbolism of J.R.R. Tolkien

“For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary 'real' world. (I am speaking, of course, of our present situation, not of ancient pagan, pre-Christian days...)”

- J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter to Milton Waldman

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien stated in the second edition of “The Lord of the Rings” that he did not prefer allegory. Instead, he preferred what he called “applicability”. Nevertheless, there are beings, objects, and places in Middle Earth that strike us as representations of Catholic beings, objects, and places. I shall try to explain a few of these.

The first of these are the Angelic beings mentioned in the Silmarillion. Tolkien writes that there was Eru, or Illúvatar, and that he brought the Ainur into being as an “offspring of his thought”. Tolkien quite clearly means for Illúvatar to be understood as God, and the Ainur as the angels. Among the Ainur are the Valar, which can be understood as the Archangels. Among the Valar is Melkor, who desires his part in the Music of the Ainur to be greater, and wishes to have the power to bring things of his own into being. Melkor then rebels. He is Lucifer, and Tolkien takes how he seeks to undo the work of God and brilliantly puts it into his own world. The other Valar, in Tolkien's own words, “built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up...”

So, we see how Tolkien clearly makes his world a Catholic one. But, is he writing a literal account of our world from our sight, or is he using images to help us come into a more real understanding of the images in our life? I will use the following as an example for this:

A common parallel drawn between Frodo and his journey to cast the Ring into the fires of Mt. Doom is one that compares it to Christ carrying His cross to Calvary. While that comparison is one that is easy to see and grasp, we might make a different one. Since Tolkien preferred applicability to allegory, comparing Frodo to the humble soul carrying his own cross might be more of an answer that we can relate to and apply to our lives. Frodo is small in stature, and the most unlikely choice to carry the Ring. But, if you think about Frodo, the fact that he is small is the reason that he is in fact, the very best choice. How can we apply this to ourselves?

Think of the Ring as sin. Men, who are battered the most by the enemy, succumb most easily to the Ring's influence – despite their strength and ability to keep the enemy at bay. Elves and Dwarves are also tempted by it. Why, then, is Frodo not tempted? The answer is this: Frodo is too small to even think of it. He isn't seeking glory by triumphantly overcoming it. But, he isn't afraid of it, either. We can apply this concept of the Ring to sin.

While Tolkien does indeed include the concrete Catholic representatives in his world, he actually gives us something more Catholic and Christian than this. What Tolkien does can be compared to Christ's parables. The Pharisees gave the Jews the images of the law, and they understood them as just that. Christ told the Jews how to serve God by showing them how His Commandments applied to their lives.

Maybe this is why Tolkien preferred applicability to allegory.

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